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Posted on April 27th, 2015 (3:00 pm) by Michael Negron

The term “weird” is often used in describing something new. It’s that feeling that can be explained, even dissected, to get at some tangible, practical effect, in an attempt to sum up a visceral exclamation of something otherwise vague, but relentlessly immediate. In that way, the “weird” is knowable, evidenced simply by reaction, and there are different kinds: there’s Metal Machine Music weird and then there’s Kid A weird, with many variants between and beyond. Whether you’re a "scholar" or some schlock who couldn’t care less about the difference, the knowing tone of experimentation is equally apparent despite the differences. Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes’ most recent release, is its own take on that, equal parts safe and effectively indulgent.

Those expecting Lou Reed-esque deviations here are going to be disappointed; Alabama Shakes have the same southern twinge, with the same stripped roots rock imaginings, and the same soulfully virtuosic Brittany Howard-beltings they had in 2012’s Boys & Girls, and all in all, that’s decidedly a good thing. The oddity is obvious in moments, not in structure. It’s set off by the beginning screech of the lead single, "Don't Wanna Fight." On first listen, you get a distinct impression of “huh, that’s odd.” It’s not really out of place by the nature of its inclusion; emotionally charged a cappella screams aren’t necessarily uncommon to set tone or release tension. Still, there’s a creeping feeling that it’s just a little too out there, like something off a first take, conflicting with the otherwise polished, if dynamically strangled, professionalism it also exudes. The rest of the song is catchy, though, so chalk it up as an anomaly.

“Dunes” begins as a fairly standard pop selection, building to a powerful chorus, cued by equally standard instrumentation (for, example, strings in the second and third verses to hint at their respective climaxes), but again, it’s handled with sincerity and earnestness coupled with some of the most successful employment of their style to date. Yet, as they build to the end of what should already be single material, Alabama Shakes chooses to smash together an impressionistic vignette of fade-out voices, sirens, and a reverberating, dour glockenspiel. At this point, it’s obvious this isn’t an aberration so much as an introduction to forty-seven-odd minutes of a tenuous battle between fully formed mastery and brash experimentation.

Between the shifting two, one thing is certain throughout: Alabama Shakes never shows a hint of trepidation. They tackle the simple strums of “This Feeling” with the same headstrong ferocity and introspective fortitude as they do “The Greatest,” Sound & Color’s equivalent to “Territorial Pissings,” plus a healthy dose of synth-y variation toward the middle. Even that doesn’t describe some of the more unexpected choices: the inclusion of programmed drums in “Guess Who,” the massive, jarring change in tone at the bridge of “Miss You,” and the sprawling “Gemini,” accentuated equally by its effected vocal harmonies as by its trudging pace, come to mind. Rarely are these changes marked by a departure from pop song structure, Alabama Shakes choosing to work within and subvert its conventions rather than to discard them altogether, but it never feels that the structure is rigidly imposed. Rather, the songs are, for the most part, pop songs at heart, just a type of pop song that attempts to challenge and defy classification.

For all the attention given to smart songwriting and defiant styling, as previously alluded to, not everything is quite so dandy. The production is lifeless, and for no real reason either; the music isn’t particularly loud, which might indicate that the production team preferred that over sound quality, and a significant amount of the mixing is actually great. The vocal harmonies, and the vocals in general, don’t fight for attention, everything has its own place and is easily recognizable, and keeping some of the more experimental passages (i.e. the end of “Dunes”) from becoming a cluttered mess takes a good deal of skill. All the basic checks for standard-quality production are there, and yet, at many places it is devoid of color and range. This would maybe be understandable if it were just “Don’t Wanna Fight,” or some other big single that needs to be loud in this new age of eternal deafness. Even tracks like “The Greatest” can use aesthetic as a pretext (as it's trying to have a garage-type sound anyway) but it’s completely inexcusable elsewhere, particularly in the first half of the album where it’s much more noticeable.

That being said, if ever a style lent itself to production abuse, “raw” rock like this would probably be it, and its effect on the album’s impact is minimal. What takes center stage here is the safely-quirky, border-of-innovative dance Alabama Shakes is playing at. Sound & Color is never really outlandishly experimental, but that can never rightfully be said because it wasn’t “daring” enough; it’s plenty daring, not confrontational, but resolute. It happens to be in the sweet spot where it doesn’t lose its accessibility, while still having a claim to being “arty,” whatever that means. Alabama Shakes clearly had a vision of what they wanted, and for those of us who don’t have a problem pairing the catchy with the creative, there’s little reason not to love it.

Track List:

  1. Sound & Color
  2. Don't Wanna Fight
  3. Dunes
  4. Future People
  5. Gimme All Your Love
  6. This Feeling
  7. Guess Who
  8. The Greatest
  9. Shoegaze
  10. Miss You
  11. Gemini
  12. Over My Head
Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

72 / 100
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